Usury, or Burning Down the House
March 8, 2010 §
Usury, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, consists in selling what doesn’t exist. He uses the example of wine: to sell the use of the wine separately from the wine itself would be illicit, since the wine itself cannot be separated from its use.
St. Thomas contrasts this with a house. A house is something which can be “rented out”: that is, its use can be separated from the thing itself. Wine cannot be rented; it can only be consumed.
Now, St. Thomas had a certain understanding of the nature of money. He was under the impression that it was impossible to “rent” money: that the use of money could not be separated from the money itself. History has born out that this is not true of money though: that like a house, money can sometimes be put to use and then returned. In such a case, paying for the privilege of the use of money is not usury.
Let us note, however, that there is more than one kind of thing one can do with a house. It is true that it is possible to use a house without consuming it, by living in it and keeping it maintained. It is equally possible, however, to consume a house: to burn it down for entertainment, for example. And inasmuch as the use of a house consists in its consumption, its use cannot be separated from the thing itself.
The same, naturally, is true of money. When its use consists in its consumption, charging interest for a loan of money is requiring payment for what does not exist, and therefore, following St. Thomas, is contrary to justice.